1902 New Giant Steam Traction Engine Restoration

Detailed restoration of New Giant steam traction engine takes patience and skill

Boiler repairs, July 1999

Boiler repairs, July 1999.

Photo by Wayne Kennedy

Content Tools

Wayne Kennedy of Danville, Iowa, is the owner and restorer of a rare 1902 New Giant traction steam engine. From all accounts, his latest undertaking may be the true definition of a total restoration effort. Besides having restored several engines, Wayne has exhibited at the annual Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, for 26 years and has served on the Board of Directors for 14. A significant part of his New Giant's history is interwoven in the Old Threshers Reunion.

Milo Mathews of Mt. Union, Iowa, a long-time exhibitor at the Old Threshers Reunion, purchased the New Giant at Oscar Nelson's sale in Utica, Nebraska, in 1951. The Giant was the cover photo of the 1952 May-June issue of IMA with this caption. "Here is an unusually well preserved and restored New Giant. It was exhibited at Mt. Pleasant (in 1951) and created a lot of attention."

After Mathews' death, the New Giant and a handful of other engines were sold at his estate sale in 1985 on the Old Threshers grounds. The New Giant was purchased by a young couple who showed it at the 1986 Reunion before putting it in storage.

"The engine was in barely-running condition and people wondered what would happen with it," Wayne remembers.

In the mid-1990s, the engine's owner began visiting with Wayne to see if she could persuade him to buy it. "I wasn't interested in it. I basically told her what she had was a big pile of nothing. It needed everything."

Faced with seeing the historic engine sold away from the area or "turned into a flower planter," he ended up buying it to keep anything from happening to it.

The engine with its return flue boiler and "a face only a mother can love" came home to Wayne's shop three years ago. This will be its home for the next four years as he painstakingly rebuilds the entire machine. He is targeting the year 2002, the New Giant's 100th birthday, as the completion date for the restoration work.

What the New Giant Needs

With the work that Wayne figured the engine could possibly need, the job is anything but typical. Before starting steam engine repair, a restorer estimates the condition of two things: the boiler and the gears. According to Wayne, the New Giant's gearing and wheels are in very good condition. "For an engine as old as it is, that's really unheard of," he noted. He thinks that it probably spent very little of its life on the road, but instead was used as a stationary engine, perhaps for a sawmill.

But when he looked at the boiler, Wayne discovered it needed significant repair. "This is about as major a restoration project as anyone gets into because of the work required," he admits. This winter a local welding company rolled new boiler plates for the engine. As of the first week in January, Wayne had them prepped to go back into the boiler. He cautions, though, that the boiler won't be "like new." It will still bear some unavoidable deterioration.

The gearing work may vary from the cosmeticr emoving years of built-up scale, paint and greaseto fairly extensive machine work in order to recondition hubs. But no matter, when Wayne, a tool and die maker at Tuthill Corporation, enters his shop at home, he tackles the work as if it's all part of a day's routine.

How would Kennedy sum up the project? "It's going to take a lot of time, work and some dollars thrown at it," he smiles.

Six Months Later

In March 1999, when Kennedy was about six months into the project, the first installment of the New Giant's restoration story was published in Farm Collector magazine. During the winter of 1998, Kennedy had torn apart the engine and had a local welding company make new boiler plates from his drawings and templates. The boiler plates were ready at Christmastime a year ago. Over the cold winter months he worked in his shop getting plates ready to go in the boiler this past summer.

When a century-old machine is being restored, naturally the second time around there will be different mechanical technology used. This time around, the iron in the boiler was welded together instead of riveted. To give the boiler an authentic look, however, Kennedy sat at his lathe and made dummy rivet heads for the boiler. Last summer, on a 102-degree July day, Kennedy mended the boiler's belly.

Although the summer's extreme temperatures were uncomfortable for the welding, a tremendous Indian summer that lasted into November enabled Kennedy to finish the boiler repairs, including sandblasting and painting.

This past fall Kennedy shifted his focus to the wheels and axles. He reconditioned the rear axle brackets and shaft and sandblasted away about an inch of crud that had built up on the wheels and gears. Then came the challenging task of remounting the brackets and axles for the rear wheels. The process, Kennedy said, involved fitting the brackets to the boiler, shimming them into place, removing them for grinding and then checking the fit all over again.

"Before you ever take something like this apart, you take pages and pages of measurements and pictures because if it doesn't match, it won't work," Kennedy cautioned.

For most of the work during the first year, the engine was suspended from an A-frame behind Kennedy's shop. This past fall he met his goal of putting the wheels back on and rolling it into storage for the winter.

Engine lovers may wonder what iron hulks would say if they could talk. Once, Kennedy said, someone asked him if he could speak any foreign languages. "I said I couldn't, but machinery talks to you. And a guy said, 'It's an inanimate object.' I told him you've got to listen and understand what its saying, but it will talk to you."

Kennedy said the engine's condition is its way of communicating. "This engine probably didn't move because the axle bearings and wheels are in good shape. But this engine is typical of most. It didn't get good care. They just ran 'em until they dropped and this engine shows that."

Former Operators Reminisce

Lowell Burden, 73, of rural Trenton, Iowa, helped create some of the New Giant's history at the Old Threshers Reunion. He ran it for Mathews with Glen McNamer for a few years before McNamer passed away in the 1960s. Burden kept on running the engine at the Reunion until it was sold with Mathews' other engines in 1985.

Burden admitted that the New Giant was a handful to operate. "It was a little bit odd to run," he said. "The steering wheel was on one side and the operating levers were on the other. So that made it kind of unhandy. There is a big square water tank on the front, so you could see on either side of it but not straight ahead. And with it having a return flue boiler, whatever water was in [the stack], you sometimes got it right down your neck."

But Burden said that he never had too much trouble with the New Giant. "It took a lot of tender loving care, but we always got it to run each year [at the Reunion]. The boiler was getting kind of weak and the inspectors kept the pressure down in it pretty well. I never ran it at more than about 65 pounds of pressure to be safe. But he's doing a lot to the engine, so when Wayne gets done with it, it'll be a lot better than it was when I ran it."

From here on out Kennedy will be reassembling pieces. "It'll be a slow process, but I'm ready to start seeing some change," he noted. Kennedy will be working on a lot of little parts and will tackle one big job this winter. The crosshead tunnel for the engine frame needs to be remachined.

Finding people to do total restoration of engines is getting harder and harder, according to Kennedy. "The shops to completely rebuild them don't exist. It's too much work and you need somebody working with you. Plus it's cost-prohibitive to pay for the hours that it takes to do this kind of work."

Now that some of the men who used to assist him with this kind of work are gone, Kennedy has decided this will be the last heavy project he does. "It is just too much to wrestle these big pieces around."

In the springtime, traction steam engine enthusiast Wayne Kennedy becomes teacher. He is the originator and instructor of a very popular class for Midwest Old Threshers in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Annually, a full slate of participants enroll in the Old Threshers Steam School to learn the principles of steam power and how to operate traction engines safely. Kennedy saw a need for the Steam School approximately 14 years ago. He has taught the class every year since then.

Although Wayne thinks the interest in the steam hobby is not as strong as it was in steam's heyday, Old Thresher's Steam Class continues to fill beyond the spots available in the course. In recent years, the course has filled to capacity and a waiting list has been started.